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|The closed Kanawha River coal-fired power plant located in Hansford, W.Va., as seen in 2020, photographed as part of an award-winning series of reports on environmental regulations. © Photo: Stacy Kranitz/The Washington Post. Click to enlarge.|
Inside Story: Tracking Regulatory Changes Reveals Insights Into Presidential Power Over Environment
Coverage of environmental regulatory rollbacks during the Trump presidency won The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens first place for outstanding large market beat reporting in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 20th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges lauded the project’s sweeping review of Trump’s impact on policy, an easy-to-digest graphic, an ambitious data-driven feature and also said of their work: "These stories sing. Lead writer Eilperin brings alive Alaska's threatened Tongass National Forest with 'old-growth stands of red and yellow cedar, Sitka spruce and Western hemlock … home to plentiful salmon runs and imposing fjords.’ This winning team showed a rare ability to capture U.S. environmental politics at a historic moment."
Inside Story recently caught up with Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens via email. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens: We had covered scores of environmental rollbacks during Donald Trump’s time in office, but a number of them had gotten reversed in court. Meanwhile, the incoming Biden administration was promising wholesale changes and a “whole of government” approach that would once again prioritize climate action. We wanted to create a systematic way to track — and help the public track — the outcome of legal decisions and of the shift in policies over time.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: The biggest challenge was (and is) compiling and maintaining a comprehensive list of these policies and determining where they stand, especially in terms of court decisions. We reached out to a number of experts to ensure we weren’t leaving some policies out, and to assess their status. We also have maintained close contact with federal agencies, environmental and industry groups and others to make sure that we are aware of policies as they change.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting/findings?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: We were struck by the extent of the rollbacks that Trump had pursued, and that Biden has targeted since he took office.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: We wanted to consolidate our findings into a graphic, interactive form, so it could be both comprehensive and also an ongoing public resource.
SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have a disproportionate impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: These environmental rollbacks have a disproportionate impact on Americans of color, including Indigenous Americans, and low-income Americans. We reached out to people in those communities, and those who advocate on behalf of them, so we could reflect which environmental safeguards were being weakened.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story/series and why?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: Shortly after Trump took office, we had launched a different tracker that covered not just environmental policies but other domestic ones, including health care and labor. (This is something Juliet did with Darla Cameron, a graphics reporter who has since left The Post.) If we could have kept that up for the next few years, it would have made it easier to put everything together in the last year of Trump’s time in office. Instead, we basically started from scratch.
‘Tracking each individual policy makes clear
just how much influence a single president
and single administration can have.’
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your project?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: The vast reach that the federal government has when it comes to overseeing environmental policies that affect every part of American lives, from the air we breathe to the efficiency of our cars, appliances and lightbulbs. Also, tracking each individual policy makes clear just how much influence a single president and single administration can have.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: While it took a lot of upfront work to construct this sort of methodical tracker, it pays enormous dividends because it illuminates patterns and possible stories in a way you otherwise wouldn’t see. It is also, we believe, serving a valuable public service.
SEJournal: Could you characterize the resources that went into producing your prize-winning reporting?
Eilperin, Dennis and Muyskens: It has mainly just taken endless hours of work to research and maintain the tracker.
Juliet Eilperin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post, editing climate and environmental coverage. She also is the author of two books, "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks" and "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives." Eilperin has worked for The Post since 1998. She previously served as The Post’s senior national affairs correspondent, White House bureau chief, national environmental reporter and House of Representatives correspondent.
Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment. He previously has covered food and drug issues, public health crises such as the Ebola and COVID-19, and the nation's economy, including the global financial crisis that began in 2008. He worked for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and The Seattle Times prior to coming to The Post.
John Muyskens is a graphics reporter who focuses on climate change and environmental justice. He worked on The Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning projects documenting fatal police shootings and global warming hot spots.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 11. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.